The 10 Most Important Secrets of Powerful Presenters

Jill Bolte Taylor holding a brainI am one of those people who loves giving speeches and presentations. From what I have heard, I’m in a minority. Many people dislike giving speeches, but I’ve always had a hard time understanding that. My delight in giving talks is probably tied up with my love of theatre, my desire to be the center of attention (although I am actually an introvert), and my need for approval (and hence applause). People often tell me that I’m a great presenter, or that they loved my talk, or that my talk was the best one at the conference etc etc. so my love for speaking seems to work.

But in all honesty, I’m never quite satisfied with the talks I give. I think most of the time I am improving, but I am always running the presentation through my head afterwards, saying, “oh, I should have …”.

Over my 30 year career of crafting and delivering speeches, classes, and presentations, I’ve attended seminars, read a lot of books, had private coaching, studied some of the “masters”, and experimented with the art and craft of speech making and speech delivering. I’m always looking to improve. I’ve learned a lot about presentations and speeches over the years, and below are my 10 Most Important Secrets of Powerful Presenters:

1. Always be working on the next level — This past May I was a speaker at the (wonderful) UXLX conference in Portugal. The conference was organized with two days of ½ day workshops sprinkled with 20 minute TED-like talks, and a final packed day of back to back keynotes. I was on late in the afternoon of that last day, so I got to hear masterful presenters talk about user experience all day. I was very impressed, not only with the content and creative ideas, but with the delivery. I decided that, although I’ve got some favorite talks I’ve been giving, it’s time to “up my game” yet again. Since then I’ve been experimenting, going to a higher level in my craft. Everyone is at a different place in their presentation or speech crafting skills. You don’t have to become the best speaker in the world overnight. But you do need to analyze your strengths and weaknesses now, and decide what “taking it to the next level” means for you right now. What do you need to do, and how will you get there? Make sure you pick a realistic next level that you can reach within a 6 to 12 month timeframe. Then go after it. Always know where you are now, and what the next level is.

2. It’s ok to have your own style – There is no one way to be a great speaker. Being a great speaker doesn’t mean that you have to open with a joke, or that you have to have highest quality photos in your powerpoint deck. There are some things that all great speakers have in common (see the rest of the points below), but you can experiment and come up with a “style” that works for you. Are you funny? Serious? Warm-hearted? Controversial? Pick what you are comfortable with and then make it your own.

3. Craft your speech – Although some people are good at “extemporaneous” speech making, most of us need to carefully craft our speeches. A formula I often use (modified from what I read in Tim Koegel’s book: The Exceptional Presenter) is:

a. Statement/description of the current problem situation
b. Description of the consequences of not doing anything differently
c. Description of the action you could take that would solve the problems
d. Specific “call to action” (exactly what is it you want the audience to do as soon as the talk is over)

What is really neat is that you can take a,b,c above and create a 10-30 second version of them. Then you start your talk with the mini version of the a,b,c. That launches the talk and you spend the bulk of the talk giving proof and examples around a,b,c, then close at the end with d.

For d.  I like to ask myself (or my client who I giving the talk for), “What is my objective? At the end of the talk, when people are leaving the room, what is it I want them to be saying to themselves? Saying to others? What action do I want them to take immediately (make sure it’s a realistic action).” Then I craft my talk around that call to action.

Voila! (French for “there it is!”) . You have crafted a powerful talk.

4. Only use visuals and props when they are necessary to get the point across or will add novelty and interest – if you have visuals, slides, or a powerpoint or keynote deck it should ONLY contain items that have visual interest or are necessary to make a point. If you are discussing the new electric car that your group has prototyped you probably want to have a picture of the car, or a model or the actual car. If you are showing the new website design then you probably will show the new site on the screen. But if you do not have something necessary or interesting to show then you should SHOW NOTHING. The idea of just talking without visuals may make you nervous, but when you think about it, it is quite absurd to be showing your talking points or notes on the screen in front of everyone. And isn’t that what a lot of people put on their Powerpoint or Keynote slides? NEVER EVER have Powerpoint or Keynote bullet talks that have the major points of what you are saying at the time in the talk. That is your outline and your notes and does not belong on the screen in front of everyone. The slides and visuals you are using are not for you at all. You need to learn to work from notes or note cards so that you are not dependent on what is on the screen to know what you are supposed to say next. And remember, not all visuals have to be slides in a Powerpoint or Keynote deck. You can use props to make your point, like the programmer I saw once who held up cooked spaghetti to talk about poorly written code, or Jill Bolte Taylor who uses a real human brain when she gives her talks on her experience having a stroke.

5. Speak in a loud clear voice – Practice speaking loudly and clearly. If you can, hire a voice coach (not a speech coach, not a singing coach, but someone who can teach you how to use your voice more effectively). I worked with Sandra McKnight from Voice Power Studios. She was great at diagnosing my voice strengths and weaknesses and helping me to develop a stronger and more effective speaking voice.

6. Video yourself talking and then fix the weird things you do – We all do it. We jingle the change in our pockets or rock back and forth on our heels. Or we mess with our hair, or cross our arms and look forbidding. Find out what your “thing” is that you do that will be distracting to the audience. You don’t want them to be looking at you and wondering when you are going to do “it” again, rather than concentrating on what you are saying. If you watch a video of you presenting you’ll see (and be able to correct) all the weird things you do.

7. Be passionate – What inspires people most is when you are inspired too. Let your interest and passion for your topic shine through. If you aren’t passionate about what you are saying, then figure out how to adjust the content so that you are.

8. Use stories – There is research that shows that people process information best when it is told in story form. So use lots of stories in your presentation to get your points across. The preference is for real stories that happened to you, as they will be the most believable.

9. Look at people in the audience – The best speakers have eye contact with the audience. Pick one person in the audience and look at them for about 3 seconds while you are talking. Then switch to someone else, then someone else and keep going. You can probably look at or close to everyone during the course of your talk.

10. Practice, practice, practice – Pick one thing at a time to change or improve or try out. Then DO IT. The more you speak and the more practice you get, the better you will become.

There are many more great ideas, but I wanted to keep this to the top 10. If you are interested check out the workshop I teach on the topic.

So what are some of your favorite tips that I left out?


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A Five Minute Version of Neuro Web Design

I get wonderful emails from readers of my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click. People write me and say how much they loved the book, etc, etc. It’s one of the benefits of writing a book!

A request from a reader — A few days ago I got one of those emails and the author asked if I had any presentations or slides that I could share with him. He was putting together a presentation for his management at work about the concepts in the book.

I procrastinate! — This is a request I get a lot, but I had never gotten around to putting together a Slideshare presentation for example, and uploading it. This is mainly because my talks and presentations are highly visual. I would have to do an audio annotation for the slides to make any sense.

I break the procrastination. On a weekend no less — When I got the email from my reader I decided that it was about time that I give it a whirl, so this weekend found me paring down my usual talk on the topic to a smaller number of slides. Then I donned a set of headphones with a microphone, and started talking.

I get it done in an hour — Slidecast (the part of slideshare where you add audio), was not the most intuitive interface, but it wasn’t too bad. I would say it took me about an hour from start to finish… from deciding on the slides, to recording the audio, and re-recording, and re-recording (in GarageBand), uploading everything and syncing up the slides with the audio (that was the klugy interface part).

See what you think, and give me feedback — It’s not perfect, but it’s a good first try. You can watch and listen below (the embed tool from Slideshare is very easy to use). It’s about 5 minutes in length. I’d love to get feedback from all of you about  this format, whether you think I should do more of these, and what topics I should talk/present about in them. So respond to me via the comments below or drop me an email at And if you don’t have the book yet, then click on one of the links in the sidebar and check it out.


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5 Ideas — How To Use Brain Science To Create Persuasive Presentations

How many BORING presentations have you attended in your lifetime? If you are like most people the answer is “too many”! Recently I gave a talk on how to use brain science to create compelling and persuasive presentations. Here are 5 ideas from the talk:

1) Talk to the emotional brain with photos. Forget text bullet points on your slides. Those bullet points are your outline. Don’t bore your audience by showing them your outline! Use colorful photos to capture the attention of the emotional brain. But don’t overdo it. You don’t need a different photo every 10 seconds for every thought you have.
2) Tell stories. Our brain processes information best when it is in the form of a story. Use stories throughout your presentation. These can be true stories or allegorical stories that make a point. Stories make the information easier to understand and process, and they also get people’s attention. Everyone loves stories. Research shows that when you tell a story the brain is reacting as though you are the character in the story. You are, in essence, experiencing what the person in the story is experiencing.
3) Talk to the “old brain”. The old brain is the part of the brain that is most interested in survival. The old brain is all about ME ME ME ME . So make sure that you start your presentation with something that is interesting to the people in the audience. Tell them a story or make a point within the first minute of the talk that is about them, not about you. That will grab their attention and their old brain will say, “I’d better pay attention to this. It’s all about me”.
4) Look people in the eye. In order to be believable you’ve got to look people in the eye while you are talking. Pick out someone in the audience and look at them for about 5 seconds, then pick another person and look at them while you are talking for about 5 seconds, etc. Even if you are not looking directly at each person, just the fact that you are looking up and making eye contact with someone gives the (largely unconscious) message that you are telling the truth and you are reliable. Looking down at your notes all the time makes it seem that you are being shifty and not telling the truth.
5) Say what everyone else is doing. Make sure to use social validation during your presentation. Don’t say “Only 10% of the departments at our company are following this policy”. That tells everyone that hardly anyone else is doing this activity. The principle of social validation says that people tend to want to do what everyone else is doing. So try to word this as “There are now departments at our company who have tried this new policy and have had great success”.
I’ve got even more ideas, but I’ll save them for another post.
Let me know: What are your ideas of how to make a presentation persuasive and compelling?
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